Guard Force Trends: Multipliers and the Market
Security guard forces, and the methods used to manage them, have seen transformational change in recent decades. Twenty years ago, the tools of the trade were a notepad and a pen, and the required technical skills peaked with the ability to use a handheld two-way radio. Guard force security was not viewed in a professional manner; guard jobs were often considered “no specific skills needed” entry level positions. Recruiters frequently told applicants, “If you can stay awake, you can do this job.”
Now, advances in technology and market forces have significantly changed how a guard force works and is managed and have also changed the role of the individual guard. These changes, which in turn have helped transform the employment economy at large, have ushered in a new business model for many guard forces.
Transformed by Technology
Security guards are no longer limited to positions like overnight officers conducting patrols in empty buildings, Checkpoint Charlies sitting in booths, or watchmen hidden away in a back room monitoring security cameras. Many security guards are now stepping into the light to serve in more customer-facing positions.
This trend is due in part to the spillover effects of market growth. The frequency of mass shootings in public places, continuing concern over terror attacks, and increasing crime rates in some major cities have all spurred growth in the security guard force industry. Due to this growth, guards are more commonplace in corporate offices, residential facilities, and schools.
With more guards in these settings, it’s not unusual for security guards to fill in as receptionists or concierges—often the first point of human contact for visitors. This new role brings with it a new set of skill requirements, such as customer service ability, proper phone etiquette, and a certain level of computer proficiency. Requirements for the latter continue to rise as the available technology continues to develop.
Guards serving as concierges and receptionists will typically be responsible for access control and visitor processing. But the visitor processing protocol has changed. Today, most access control systems offer a visitor management option or the ability to interface with a third-party visitor management system.
Rather than record visitors in a log book and issue paper passes, the technology is now available for visitors to be registered and recorded in a database. Guards may need to use digital cameras to capture photos and print temporary passes. Scanning IDs to perform instant background checks is becoming more common. These tasks require the guard to have a higher level of technical proficiency than was needed in the past.
These access duties are just one example of how technological advances have transformed guarding. Token-based touring systems, which record data electronically into hand-held units that are downloaded into a central database upon completion, have been the industry standard for decades. But with new technological innovations, hand-held downloadable tour systems are quickly being replaced by smartphone-based tour systems.
These new systems allow for real-time reporting and have enhanced reporting features, providing greater detail than the download systems. They use either QR codes that interface with a smartphone’s camera or near-field communication (NFC) technology, which allows the smartphone to scan tokens around the facility.
With these changes in technology, managers must realize that not every guard will be able to gain the needed skill sets. For instance, after starting in his current position in early 2018, the author began to evaluate the tasks being performed by contracted security staff. At the time, they were still almost exclusively providing pen and paper reports and logs.
The author implemented some modest changes such as moving to typed and emailed incident reports and allowing the guards use of the access control system to check employment status of individuals, issue temporary badges, and do some low-level troubleshooting.
Most of the guard staff were able to take on the new tasks, but two individuals ended up lacking computer proficiency to adapt to the changes. Although the guards were reliable, well liked, and had other positive traits, their inability to adjust to the new technical requirements forced a change in staffing. This was not a decision made lightly, but in the end the guard service provider recognized that requirements now exceeded the individuals’ abilities and that changes were necessary.
Technological advances can also create other types of challenges for those managing a guard force. Take, for example, the diverse smartphone touring systems, many of which incorporate GPS tracking and geofencing to ensure that the guard conducting the tour is in the proximity of the token (or QR code) being scanned.
In one instance, a guard force manager set up a QR-code-based tour for a client site. Unfortunately, the manager did not fully understand the functionality of the system, so he did not activate the GPS features. A resourceful security guard working for the manager realized that he could conduct his entire tour by taking photos of all the QR codes and then printing them onto a single page. Using that single page, the guard then scanned the codes one at a time—all from the comfort of the office.
Since the reason for the tour was to inspect the areas of the facility for hazards, including potential chemical leaks, the guard’s decision to improvise and skip the tour was risky. As it happened, a leak did occur at the site, which is how the guard’s malfeasance was discovered. Fortunately, the leak was minor, and no damage occurred. Still, the guard company was penalized and required to pay the cost for the modest cleanup.
Once the problem was discovered, the manager came up with a solution. The QR codes were all replaced with NFC tokens, which require the smartphone to be placed just inches from the token to record the scan. This eliminated the possibility that another guard might conduct stationary tours.
As the prior example makes clear, innovative technology alone does not solve all issues. The technology must be understood and used correctly to bring about process improvements.
Many other areas of guard force management have seen advancements due to new technology. Software applications, smartphones, and various other pieces of hardware and software have all become essential management tools.
Timekeeping. Timekeeping apps for real-time attendance allow managers to know exactly when guards report to duty. This has several benefits. It is important for wage and hour compliance, and it helps supervisors manage cold start positions, positions where the arriving guard is the first on duty and is not relieving another officer, by sending an alert if a guard does not arrive on time.
For example, a guard company with a significant national presence in the high-end retail market operated cold starts at most of its locations. To avoid client-imposed penalties for late arrivals or open guard posts, the guard service company needed a system that would provide real time information.
Rather than having every guard individually call into a central dispatch, the guard services company decided to move to an automated system. In the new system, guards would call into an application and enter a PIN code, which allowed them to either check in or check out. The system verified that the guards were on location by using GPS and caller ID. This meant that dispatchers no longer needed to take dozens of calls at the start of each shift; they simply had to monitor the control panel to ensure that each post had a proper check-in. Late and open posts triggered an automated notification to management.
As a management tool, this system proved effective. Guards could no longer call into dispatch claiming to be on site, while they were still 10 minutes away from the location. Dispatchers were not bogged down for 15 minutes taking an onslaught of calls. Guard arrival times were recorded more accurately because they did not have to wait in a queue for the dispatcher to take the call. And in the event a guard did not report on time, management was able to respond faster to meet the clients’ needs.
Tracking vehicles via GPS is not a new practice. But now, with the use of smartphone apps, guards inside a facility can be monitored in the same way vehicles have been tracked. With accuracy within a few feet, GPS can track a guard inside a facility, and an app can report back to management if the guard remains stationary beyond a designated length of time.
Although this option is often used to detect if a guard has fallen asleep, it can also serve as a health safety tool. Since many guards work alone, an alert indicating that a guard has been motionless for a certain amount of time can be valuable in the event a guard becomes injured or incapacitated while on duty.
Inspections. Another management responsibility assisted by technology is guard inspections. Management can visually inspect guards when they are not physically on-site using apps such as Skype or Facetime.
The use of a webcam provides higher quality inspections versus simply checking in by phone. A guard’s appearance, uniform, and post can all be visually inspected to ensure compliance with company standards. This improves overall efficiency by eliminating travel time between facilities and allowing significantly more guards to be inspected during a shift.
In the past, guard force companies commonly took an assembly line approach to recruiting, with the next person in line assigned to the next available opening. But this put-a-body-on-a-post mentality didn’t significantly consider an individual’s abilities or the requirements of a specific job.
This approach often resulted in a security guard shell game, with guards rotated from client to client whenever problems occurred. Rather than separate from problem employees, guard companies would simply transfer them to fill a vacancy elsewhere. Some guards passed through half a dozen sites or more before the company finally terminated employment.
The mission of today’s recruiter is to be more selective in identifying the right candidate for the appropriate position. Often, it must be determined whether a candidate has the technical skills to use the needed hardware, mobile apps, information databases, and various software applications. Besides technical abilities, security recruiters are also looking for customer service and communication skills. Many openings seek candidates with at least an associate degree, or equivalent work experience.
Overall, the emphasis is on making sure the individual fits the job requirements. A candidate with outstanding customer service skills may make a great concierge. But if he or she does not have strong computer skills, that same candidate may not be a good fit for a security command center position.
Complicating the security recruiter’s job is that other industries that have traditionally hosted many minimum wage jobs have begun changing their business models and increasing their base wages well above state mandated minimums. For example, Amazon has established a $15 minimum wage, Costco $14, and Target and Walmart are both at $11. This creates competition for employees as the wage gap between security positions and other entry level jobs closes.
Guard force recruiting is also affected by the low U.S. unemployment rate. In November 2018, the national unemployment rate held at 3.7 percent, the lowest jobless rate since December 1969. When unemployment rates drop to such historic lows, qualified personnel become more difficult to find and hire, especially with increased competition from other industries.
To contend with these difficult conditions, security recruiters are more aggressively developing internal talent pools, holding onto applicant résumés longer, and using online resources to proactively seek out candidates. As the traditional candidate pool shrinks, recruiters are looking toward recent college graduates and returning military personnel for skilled job candidates.
The author experienced firsthand how tight the labor market was in the scenario cited previously, when the two guards were let go because the job requirements grew beyond their capabilities. The author recognized that the additional job responsibilities should come with higher compensation, so when the changes were rolled out the company also implemented a 25 percent pay increase for the remaining guards.
When the company advertised the two open positions at the higher pay rate, it could not quickly find qualified replacements. Although the company still maintained its contractual guard requirements and never dropped coverage, it did so by absorbing non-billed overtime for several months. It took a significant loss to its profit margin.
Guard force management is, at its root, personnel management. And so, management issues that arise from human resource-related concerns deserve serious consideration.
In U.S. states such as California, which has extremely stringent wage and hour requirements, mismanagement can expose a company to class action litigation. In recent years, several guard service companies have had multimillion dollar judgments awarded against them for violations. Technological solutions like the call-in system discussed previously can help, but like any other tool they must be managed and used properly to provide a benefit.
In the #MeToo era, employees today are more informed and aware of their rights, and information and resources are just a Google search away. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and harassment complaints can bring with them significant financial penalties to the individual manager and company. In today’s business environment, good managers have a strong understanding of what behavior and conduct constitutes, or approaches, harassment from an HR perspective.
Just before the #MeToo movement made national headlines, one guard company was being served with an increasing number of EEOC and harassment complaints. In a meeting with the CEO and vice president of human resources, the CEO suggested increased training. This initially seemed like an excellent suggestion, because it would help managers in their interactions with employees and raise awareness of key HR issues.
But then the CEO clarified his suggestion: he indicated that the training he wanted was for the guards to understand “that it’s not illegal for your boss to be a jerk.” It became clear that there was a top-down management problem. The CEO’s attitude clearly did not fit with current thinking about sustaining a healthy workplace culture.
“The line between disrespect and harassment is very thin,” said Matt Verdecchia, a senior trainer with Health Advocate’s EAP+Work/Life division, during the Society for Human Resources Management’s 2017 annual conference. “We need to be more sensitive to insensitivity.”
Clearly the CEO of the firm was not being sensitive to insensitivity. Managers must understand that their attitudes have consequences, and the more senior a manager, the greater the impact. Complaints against that company continued.
In the past, a guard force manager’s interaction with HR typically began and ended with recruiters. Today, a successful guard force manager should embrace the broader role that many HR managers have taken on in companies. EEOC education and antiharassment training should be a part of every guard manager’s core curriculum. Maintaining open communication with regards to employee coaching and performance evaluations can avoid costly situations.
Guard force operations and management will continue to change. New technologies are developed, the economic landscape evolves, and new challenges emerge. But at the end of the day, a guard force consists of individuals. For senior managers down to the on-site guard, change will be continuous. In response, education, training, and learning from experience should be, as well.
The Business Side: Policies, Costs, and Compliance
Changes in public policy translate into cost factors that impact guard force management. In recent years, the trends of rising minimum wage, mandates regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and paid sick leave have all come into play when managing a successful guard force.
The average U.S. security guard earns $12–$13 per hour, according to the 2018 white paper U.S. Contract Security Industry by Robert H. Perry & Associates. To attract quality personnel, security guard companies typically pay around $3 above the state minimum wage.
However, as expectations rise and deeper skill sets for guards become more commonly required, recruiting will become more challenging. Additional responsibility and higher caliber candidates will drive this base wage up, creating a wider gap between the minimum wage and average guard rates. The impact of this is already being reflected in higher bill rates.
Another factor in guard cost increases is the recent public policy trend of increasing minimum wages. In 2016, New York and California became the first U.S. states to mandate a $15 minimum wage, which is to be phased in over several years. Several cities have also mandated a $15 minimum wage, and many other U.S. states have initiated minimum wage increases.
With these increases, security companies will be forced to increase both pay rates and corresponding bill rates. For example, in New Jersey the minimum wage is $8.85 per hour, so a security guard making $11.85 is earning 34 percent above minimum wage. An increase to a $15 minimum wage would push that security guard up to a wage of $20.10 per hour if the company maintained the same 34 percent differential over the minimum wage. Assuming a 50 percent markup for billing, a customer’s costs would go from $17.76 to $30.15 per hour.
Other public policy factors also driving up cost for service are the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and a growing trend to mandate paid sick leave for all employees.
When the ACA required employers to offer health plans, the costs of this new coverage were ultimately rolled up and passed through to customers of guard companies.
Moreover, 11 U.S. states and the District of Columbia now have statewide paid sick leave laws, and five other states have laws on a city- or countywide basis. These laws have significant cost implications because they typically apply to both full-time and part-time employees.
When considering these factors, it is not surprising that customers are looking for solutions to keep costs in check. One approach is reducing staff and using technology to allow the remaining staff to work more efficiently.
In addition, some guard companies are rebranding themselves to offer more than traditional guard services. Mobile guarding, remote monitoring, integrated guarding, and autonomous robots are some of the services being offered by these service providers. A “do more with less” philosophy is moving the industry toward using technology to maximize efficiency.
For example, with proper camera placements and use of analytics and alarms, multiple locations can be monitored from a single workstation by one guard, or even possibly an off-site central station. A second guard roving between the facilities can provide any needed on-site response, tracked in real time.
Revised Private Security Officer Guideline
The ASIS Standards and Guidelines Commission recently updated the Private Security Officer (PSO) Selection and Training Guideline. This document provides guidance for establishing and managing a program for choosing and training private security officers, and it is applicable to both proprietary and contract security. It provides a basis for an organization to develop or demonstrate that its private security officer selection and training policies, practices, procedures, and program are consistent with applicable legal, regulatory, and contractual obligations in the organization’s jurisdiction and where the security services will be performed.
The guideline points out that an organization must understand its mission, governance, and goals before hiring officers; then it should establish policies and procedures for officer selection and training that promote its mission. Managers must decide on minimum qualifications for officers and abide by those criteria. Background screening of personnel is critical.
Roles, responsibilities, and authorities relevant to the selection and training program should be assigned and communicated within the organization. Training should be consistent with legal, regulatory, and contractual obligations. Administrators should continually assess the training program for effectiveness and applicability, and to discover opportunities for program improvement.
The guideline also includes two valuable annexes that offer sample screening criteria and training topics. ASIS members are entitled to a free download of each ASIS standard and guideline. To learn more, visit asisonline.org/standards.
Joseph Ranucci, CPP, is the U.S. manager of security for Almac. He spent 15 years working in management and executive positions for multiple guard service providers. Ranucci began his career in 1993 when he worked as a security guard while earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.